Starwatch: Fall brings longer nights for stargazing
I love summer stargazing, but if you have an early morning wake-up call during the week like I do, you have to restrict your nights under the stars to the weekend. During most of the summer it's not really dark enough until well after 10 p.m., making it tough on early risers.
Another problem with summer stargazing for everyone is humidity. It naturally tends to keep the skies a bit more on the hazy side and the added moisture in the air also intensifies the effects of light pollution. And then there are those wonderful, hungry mosquitoes.
Those are just some of the reasons I love September stargazing. All of those nighttime nuisances start gradually going away. I would much rather wear a jacket instead of bug dope when I'm looking out into our universe … and I love what I'm seeing in the sky this time of year.
The summer constellations still dominate much of the Rochester sky, with the "Summer Triangle" dazzling bright overhead as soon as evening twilight ends. Just find the three brightest stars you can see at the top of the celestial dome and that's it.
It's one of the best tools for helping you navigate that part of the sky because the three stars you see, Vega, Altair and Deneb, are all the brightest stars in their respective constellations: Lyra the Harp, Aquila the Eagle and Cygnus the Swan, otherwise known as the Northern Cross. From those three constellations you can branch out with your eyes to find other surrounding fainter constellations like the delightful Delphinius the Dolphin.
In the low southern sky are two of my favorite star pictures, Sagittarius the Archer and Scorpius the Scorpion. As featured last week, Sagittarius is also known as the "Little Teapot" because that's what it actually looks like. Sagittarius lies in the general direction in space of the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. To the right of the Little Teapot is Scorpius, a constellation that actually looks like a scorpion, but by this late in the summer, much of the end of the tail is at or below the horizon.
In early September, the bright planets Mars and Saturn are still close together in a nice celestial hug in the low southwest sky, just to the right of Scorpius. They're the brightest star-like objects in that part of the sky.
They start out the month only five to six degrees apart which is about half the width of your hand held at arm's length. By the end of the month, Mars and Saturn will both be even lower in the southwest sky at the end of evening twilight and will be much farther apart.
By month's end, Mars will drift eastward among the stars and get into a nice embrace with Antares, the brightest star in Scorpius. That will be a nice show that I'll feature in the coming weeks.
In the northern heavens, the Big Dipper is hanging by its handle in the northwest sky. The Big Dipper isn't actually a constellation, but outlines the derriere and tail of Ursa Major, the Great Bear of the night sky. Using the adjacent map and a little eyeball elbow grease, you can also see the rest of the big bear's torso, head and at least two of his curved legs.
As you continue to face north, you'll see the fainter Little Dipper is standing on its handle, and at the end of the handle is the somewhat brighter star Polaris, also known as the North Star. The Little Dipper is also known as Ursa Minor the Little Bear. Polaris is at the end of the junior bear's tail. Every single celestial object visible in the sky appears to circle around Polaris, since it's shining directly above the Earth's terrestrial North Pole.
Facing the east, look just below the bright W that outlines Cassiopeia the Queen and you'll see the first of the autumn constellations, Pegasus the Winged Horse. Just look for the "Great Square," or the diamond of four brighter stars rising in the east that outline the torso of the flying horse.
If you have a pair of binoculars or a small telescope, scan to the upper left of the great square of Pegasus and see if you can find what looks likes an oval-shaped fuzz ball. That patch of fuzz is actually the giant Andromeda Galaxy, the next-door neighbor of our own Milky Way Galaxy.
Unfortunately this coming week and most of next week, moonlight will challenge your stargazing a bit as Sept. 8 will have a full harvest moon. However, all is not lost. Harvest moons can be a lot of fun. I'll have more on that next week.
Instructions for sky map
Cut out the map. Hold it over your head and line up the compass points on the map with the points on the horizon. Use a small flashlight with a piece of red cloth or paper over the lens to protect your night vision.